A possible agreement on the Mavi Marmara affair: a revival of Turkish-Israeli relations?

On February, 9th Mr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, referred in an interview to a Turkish television about the possible and imminent closure of an agreement with Israel concerning the compensation for the Turkish victims of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. In that occasion, Israel attacked an international aid flotilla directed to Gaza with humanitarian aid, causing the death of nine Turkish citizens.

That event, politically speaking, caused a first clash between the two countries since after the beginning of the 1990s, when their respective relations substantially improved. In particular, following the 2009 ‘one-minute- incident’ in Davos, the Mavi Marmara attack meant the suspension of the diplomatic ties and military agreements between the two parties. Nonetheless, it did not endangered Turkey’s commercial ties with Israel: according to some data from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the trade volume between the two countries exceeded USD 4 billion in 2012[1]. Furthermore, Turkey still maintains a visa-free policy with Israel[2] despite the decrease in the number of visitors from the latter country. This apparent contradiction unveils a truth about Turkish foreign policy: that is, the fact that the AKP has founded its relations with the neighboring countries mainly on an economic and trade-focused base rather than on the so much discussed constructivist approach.

Coming back to the events, a first step towards reconciliation was taken in March 2013 when Prime Minister Netanyahu, during Obama’s visit to Israel, telephoned Erdoğan and apologized for the Mavi Marmara incident. The event immediately prompted speculations about a Turkish-Israeli reconciliation but it did not result into something concrete.Instead, in a very recent interview, Davutoğlu reported that ‘on Sunday there had been a “momentum” in talks in order to bridge the gaps […]’. Despite the Minister did not specify the terms of the alleged agreement and stressed the presence of resilient divergences between the two parties, he affirmed that ‘serious progress has been made in recent meetings’. Furthermore, he went on saying that ‘A historic step was taken with the apology […] Now a second step will be taken with the compensation[3]. A similar attitude was shared by the opposite side, since two former Israeli ambassadors to Turkey commented positively about the recent development of the Mavi Marmara affair, in contrast to the ‘bitter times’ of the last years[4].

Likewise in March 2013, again there is a crawling feeling of a possible recover between the two countries. Are we actually re-experiencing a ‘normalization’ of intergovernmental relations, as Minister Davutoğlu suggested[5]? Firstly, I would like to reflect on the use of the term ‘normalization’ itself: in fact, it is very singular that Davutoğlu adopted it with respect to Israel since it usually concerned the last-ten-years foreign policy with the Arab states of the neighborhood. In fact, relationship with countries like Syria, Iran and Iraq improved consistently with the rise of the AKP, until the deadlock caused by the breakout of the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. From an isolated and hostile position, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu managed to recover and strengthen ties with the Middle Eastern neighbors by building on the European, functionalist-oriented example and through the use of constructivist rhetoric. On the contrary, during the same period of time, the AKP progressively widened distances from Israel. Having reached the ‘zenith’ during the last decade of the 20th century, Turkish-Israeli relations became progressively strained since the beginning of the 2000s, reflecting the deterioration of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In brief, they became securitized: according to the Copenhagen School, it means that their management shifted to the extra-political realm, within security politics. Before, when the PKK menaced Turkey’s state integrity and the Refah party its secular pillars, the government left behind the Arab countries and collaborated with Israel. Instead, by the end of the decade, things started changing: the Turkish Constitutional Court banned and closed in 1998 the Refah Party under the allegation of menacing the principles of Kemalism; in 1999 Öçalan was captured in Kenya and then imprisoned. These two events decreased the threats to the secularity and integrity of the Turkish state. Contemporarily, also the decision of the 1999 Helsinki Summit – which recognized Turkey as a candidate country- triggered the change in favor of the Europeanization of Turkish foreign policy implying, thus, the diminishment of its military traits. Thereafter, the beginning of the new century implied a drastic change in the Turkish attitude towards Israel: the failure of the Camp David peace talks, before, and the attack to Gaza, later in 2002, prompted the turn. For the very first time, Turkish leaders started talking about ‘genocide’ or ‘state terrorism’ with regard to the Israeli’s massive killings of the Palestinians in Gaza[6]. The second attack to Gaza of 2008 put the relations into a deadlock: this became clear when, at the World Economic Forum in Davos of 2009, Erdoğan publicly accused President Shimon Peres of mass violations of human rights and of the killings in Gaza. This so called ‘one minute incident’ increased Erdoğan’s popularity among the Arabs as a supporter of the Palestinian cause[7]. The answer from Israel arrived soon after, when the Turkish ambassador received a public humiliation during a meeting with the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon. Then, Erdoğan cancelled the Turkish-Israeli-American joint military exercise, ‘the Anatolian Eagle’: this decision highlighted the rise of the civilians as primary actors of foreign policy[8] under the AKP. However, the final break up arrived with the Mavi Marmara incident.

So, bearing in mind these considerations, is it possible to talk again about a change of Turkey’s foreign policy? Let’s try to answer by taking into consideration the two countries’ respective domestic and foreign contexts. Firstly, it must consider Turkey’s precarious position in the neighborhood. The Syrian crisis has brought the interstate relations back at odds and also weakened Turkish collaboration with Iran, despite the recent cautious improvements. Erdoğan’s labeling of Morsi’s overthrow as a ‘coup’ widened distances with Egypt too. On the contrary, the recent Mavi Marmara talks seem perfectly synchronized with the resume of Israeli peace talks with Palestine under the initiative of US Secretary of State John Kerry[9]. The influence of the peace talks on Turkish-Israeli relations is also demonstrated by Davutoğlu’s negative comment about the Israel’s decision of building new settlements in East and West bank, where the Palestinians would like to settle their future state[10].

Instead, it is less clear how the changes of Turkish domestic politics would affect the relations with Israel. Just to mention a few facts: this summer we had the Gezi Park protests, then the clashes between Erdoğan and Gülen and, finally, the corruption scandals. Not to mention the increasing divergence between Erdoğan’s and Gül’s attitude in foreign policy. All these elements are likely to influence the results of the next municipal and, later on, presidential elections in Turkey and, consequently, also the country’s foreign relations. Another reason behind the current positive diplomatic moves may be linked to Ariel Sharon’s death, who ‘presided over some of the most turbulent times in Israeli-Palestinian history’[11]. In fact, there might be a reason why no Turkish delegate attended the former Prime Minister’s funerals.

In sum, Turkish-Israeli relations are certainly experiencing a new momentum even if the path is still unclear. There is no doubt that the directions of Turkey’s foreign policy with Israel will be influenced by the peace talks promoted by Kerry and by Turkey’s relation with the other neighbors as well. However, also the Turkish next election ballots and domestic politics play a certain role in this game. For the moment, no Israeli ambassador has come back to Turkey yet.

Francesca Azzarà

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

[1] Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey Website. Available at: http://www.mfa.gov.tr/sub.en.mfa?3be23940-2ce6-4541-bcf2-66e4a2bb5ea5

[2] Kirisci, Kemal, ‘Comparing the neighborhood policies of Turkey and the EU in the Mediterranean’, in Tocci, Nathalie, Kirisci, Kemal and Altunisik, Meliha, Benli, ‘Turkey: Reluctant Mediterranean power’, Mediterranean Paper Series, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, p. 34, 2011.

[3] AFP, ‘Turkish official: We are near deal with Israel’, in The Times of Israel, 10 February 2014. Available at: http://www.timesofisrael.com/turkish-official-we-are-near-deal-with-israel/. Accessed: 12 February 2014.

[4] Serkan Demirtaş, ‘Amid sound and fury, Turkey-Israel alliance endures’, in Hurriyet Daily News.com, 10 February 2010. Available at: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english/domestic/10705597.asp. Accessed: 10 February 2010.

[5] ’Turkey and Israel ‘close to reviving ties’, in Al-Jazeera, 10 February 2014. Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2014/02/turkey-israel-close-reviving-ties-201421019715799747.html. Accessed: 12 February 2014

[6] Balci, Ali and Kardas, Tuncan, ‘The changing dynamics of Turkey’s relations with Israel’, Insight Turkey, Vol 14, No. 2, 2012, pp. 100-11.

[7] Altunisik, Meliha Benli, ‘Challenges to Turkey’s soft power in the Middle east’, TESEV, June 2011; Kibaroglu, Mustafa, ‘What went wrong with the “zero problem with neighbors” doctrine?’, Turkish Policy Quarterly, Volume 11, No. 3, 2012. Available at: http://www.turkishpolicy.com/dosyalar/files/vol_11-no_3%20kibaroglu.pdf.  Accessed: 25 August 2013.

[8] Kardaş, Tuncay and Warning, Martina, ‘The Impact of Changing Islamic Identity

on Turkey’s New Foreign Policy’, Alternatives Turkish Journal Of International Relations, Vol. 10, No. 2-3, p. 134, Summer-Fall 2011. Available at: www.alternativesjournal.net.134

[9] ‘Abbas talks to Erdoğan, Gül about Israeli-Palestinian peace talks’, in Today’s Zaman, 22 July 2013. Available at: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-321527-abbas-has-talks-with-erdogan-gul-over-planned-peace-process.html. Accessed: 12 February 2014.

[10] ‘Turkey condemns plans for new Israeli settlements’, in Today’s Zaman, 12 January 2014. Available at: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-336424-turkey-condemns-plans-for-new-israeli-settlements.html. Accessed: 12 February 2014.

[11] ‘No condolences from Turkey for Sharon’s death’, in Cihan Beta. Available at: http://en.cihan.com.tr/news/No-condolences-from-Turkey-for-Sharon-s-death_4086-CHMTMwNDA4Ni8xMDA1. Accessed: 12 February 2014.

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